Brandon Seifert: The Medical/Magical MetaphorA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks, Zack Davisson
It's no secret that we're big fans of the writing of Brandon Seifert here on Comics Bulletin, so when we had the chance to talk with him at Wizard World Portland this year, we had to take the time to do so. I think our discussion this time has a lot to offer even to people who don’t know Brandon's work very well. Our conversation about mysticism and the nature of supernatural evil was one of the best conversations that we had at WWP. As always, Brandon is a veritable fount of knowledge about such subjects, which makes this conversation a real joy to read.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: We’re half way through Witch Doctor: Mal Practice and things are not getting any better for our favorite witch doctor, our favorite master of the supernatural. Tell us about some of the problems he’s encountered and what can we expect in the second half of the series. Things look grim.
Brandon Seifert: The setup for Mal Practice was that Doctor Morrow tried to take a night off from work and ended up getting infected with this supernatural STD that turned out to be part of this whole plot against him by this group of what amount to magical meth chefs, more or less.
Things have just kind of gone from that to worse in the first three issues. The fourth issue sees him starting to put the pieces back together now that he knows what he’s dealing with. He finally comes up with the answer for what he’s going to do about this supernatural infection, which involved a really fun crossing of traditional Doctor Strange tropes with Fantastic Voyage.
That’s one of those things that Lukas has been bothering me to do for years. Every time he’s like, “So for the next series can we do the astral projecting inside his lung and fighting like the larva dragon?” I’m like, “We’ve discussed that how many times? That’s the next one after that.”
CB: So finally Lukas gets to draw that. What I like is that your take on mysticism is similar to what we’re used to, but it’s not Doctor Strange derived, it’s not channelling Steve Ditko. It’s your own very unique take on mysticism. Where does that come from?
Seifert: Honestly, as much as I like stuff that I’ve seen before, it’s not very interesting to me to do something that I’ve already seen. One of the things that I think is visually great about magic and monsters is it’s so easy to turn them into metaphors for something else. For example, the way that Buffy used its setting as metaphors for growing up, adolescence and stuff.
In our case it’s diseases and medicine and all that. I do really enjoy playing with allegory and metaphor involving magic. If you look at the series ideas that I have -- which you can’t really because I haven’t posted them online -- but most of them, I have like two or three that are, “Here, this is magic and monsters as a metaphor for arms proliferation, here’s magic and monsters as a metaphor for history” and then for Witch Doctor it’s a medical-biological thing.
CB: And it’s like an STD but it’s not a dirty story. It’s just more a very intense kind of mystical story. That’s one of the things I really kind of enjoyed about it.
Seifert: Thank you. [The monsters are] strigoi, living vampires from Eastern European mythology, but it’s a parasite that replaces your tongue. It eats and replaces your tongue. Based on the actual [parasite] that eats and replaces your tongue.
Zack Davisson for Comics Bulletin: Is that based on the fish? I forget the name of it…
Seifert: Yeah, it’s the crustacean that replaces the fish’s tongue. It’s Cymothoa exigua.
CB: So your mix of magic and the medical obviously I think would harken back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Is that an influence on you?
Seifert: I don’t know that it was a specific influence, but I’ve always liked the crossing of the two. I think things like Dracula were more of an influence. The idea of the doctor who fights monsters is at least twenty years older than Dracula.
CB: Which is clearly the science versus mysticism battle right there, which is the focus of Dracula.
Seifert: Exactly, but the problem for me is that as soon as Professor Van Helsing figures out it’s a vampire he stops acting like a doctor or a scientist. He’s like, “Ok, we just have to stake it. Just fucking stake it.”
CB: Although in Dracula he doesn’t actually stake it. That’s from the movie. He uses a bowie knife
Seifert: Which is not necessarily that effective against vampires. But I wanted to see that kind of character. It’s the same kind of thing. There have been lots of doctors who investigate the supernatural and then they end up of as detectives or monster hunters or just generic sorcerers. Doctor Strange, I think, has this really fascinating concept, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the execution of the character at any point in his 40 or 50 year history.
So I wanted to do something where you had a doctor character approaching the supernatural the way a doctor actually might and thinking about things in terms of… because a lot of the classic monsters right now, you can look at, even if it’s not caused by an actual disease organism, they still function like diseases.
Vampirism and zombies are contagious even if they’re just like a curse or some sort of magical thing. You can treat them. All you have to do to stop a zombie apocalypse is quarantine all the people who have been infected. That’s easier said than done, but it’s the same thing like with smallpox or a zombie outbreak.
CB: I think that’s pretty interesting, especially when you think that originally all doctors were magicians at the same time, when you go back to the witch doctors and the shamans. The whole idea of science and magic splitting from each other didn’t even really happen until the Renaissance.
Seifert: Yeah, with the alchemists, going in different directions.
CB: So those two things, science and magic, have always been merged in a sense. And then we have this split. I think now, like you talked about modern monster movies, we’re almost seeing those two joining back up again. They went their separate ways and now they’re becoming friends again. And when you look at things like the zombie apocalypse, especially monsters, sociologist always say, whatever the popular monster of the time is, you can read something about society on that.
Seifert: Yeah and I think that is what I like about monsters. That’s why I think they’re so fun to write and that’s one of the things I realised, when I was working on Witch Doctor is that most of the big monsters right now are diseases, are contagious things. So werewolves, vampires, zombies, even demonic possession. Kind of the odd man out is ghosts. You also don’t see as many ghost stories as you used to. People seem to be much more afraid of getting infected by something than about the restless dead.
CB: And you also don’t see very many singular monsters any more. Monsters come in hordes nowadays. It’s like one isn’t scary. You don’t have the Frankenstein monster, you don’t have the Dracula. You have a thousand of them.
Seifert: And even in Dracula, like there are a bunch of other vampires.
CB: In the original book there are four, I believe, Dracula and his three wives.
Seifert: And then Lucy later.
CB: Lucy, yeah absolutely, you’re right, Lucy Westenra. Yeah, that is very interesting. I’ve often wondered what the zombie means. Because Romero saw that as the threat of consumerism in culture, you know, people being wrapped inside this just massive humanity that doesn’t think for itself.
Seifert: And for me, what I think is really interesting is, I always find traditional zombies…
CB: Do you mean the Haitian zombies?
Seifert: No, I’m sorry, I mean traditional like Romero era, it’s a very Cold War kind of thing, where it’s very much like Mutually Assured Destruction. It’s “an apocalypse is going to happen and you can’t really avoid it.”
CB: That is so poignant. The idea that there’s an apocalypse that is “going” to happen and you can’t avoid it. That’s absolutely true.
Seifert: And then it’s also the same kind of Red Scare stuff, like the shambling masses. And then what I think is really interesting with that is then shortly after 9/11 you start getting movies about more limited zombie outbreaks, like Shaun of the Dead. You start getting fast zombies, like in 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. And you start getting, like in Dawn of the Dead for the first part of the movie, you can’t tell who the zombies are.
And so it’s much more like this fast-paced kind of terrorism thing. The threat isn’t necessarily apocalyptic, but it’s also faster and it’s harder to avoid it. The old methods don’t necessarily work. So I think that there are a lot of different metaphors that you can have.
CB: But now, in your comic, you’re bringing up some of these old classic monsters that no one has ever heard of. So are you hunting for metaphors within them or are you just thinking, “That’s a damn cool monster. I want to throw it in there”
Seifert: A lot is, “that’s cool,” but then there are other things. For Witch Doctor it’s the medical/magical metaphor. There are lots of monsters in different cultures that are either witches who turn into that monster, or in some cases it’s specifically an illness that only witches get. So I’m using it as a medical metaphor. It’s a spell-born disease and so it’s like diseases that you get from doing drugs or things like that.
So that’s why I used the Penanggalan [from Malaysian folklore]. That’s one of those where it’s only witches who turn into that. The same with the Loup Garou [from Caribbean folklore], it’s also one of those. It’s only witches and it’s only like old crones. Two of the villains are twins, except one of them is an old crone because her magic abuse has left her infected with this parasite and the other one is young and beautiful and her head comes off and her guts come out.
So it is metaphors, but I’m not doing too much in the way of random metaphors. It’s much more like smaller, one to one correlations with medicine.
CB: It’s just that a lot of horror comics will have a more stylistic art. You rarely see, you could almost call this traditional comic book style. And so it’s rare to see a horror comic coming out in a traditional comic book. And it’s the juxtaposition, I think, that makes it especially eerie is that at this point you expect the woman to be shooting rays out of her hand or something and instead…
Seifert: So much of it is like it’s the Wrightson classic horror comics style. I think it really works with this because it’s such a detail-oriented book and the writing and the concepts are so detail oriented that if everything is just murky backgrounds and amorphous stuff and there’s no establishing shots or master shots that show you where everything is, it’s not something where the style, or the tone, or most important it is the devil in the details. I think it works with Lucas’ style in a way just did not with one of the other comics styles.
CB: And the Hellraiser book you have a much more defined mythology that you’re working in. Obviously you love that mythology. You deeply versed in it. How do you find those two mythologies different? One is scientific based, one is much more… scientific based in a different way, I guess.
Seifert: The Hellraiser stuff is much more amorphous. They really didn’t define it very much in the movies. All the movies contradicted each other. The recent comic series have been kind of going in a different direction than the movies, too. On the one hand, there is kind of an established direction, on the other hand it isn’t very detailed.
So one of the things that I like to do is add some more detail. If you have a character whose is a high priest in Hell, what does that mean? What is their day like? What is that? Besides showing up when somebody opens a puzzle box, they may have other duties. There hasn’t really been much of a sense of that in the comic before and I’d like to include that.
But there are so many other things to keep track of in Hellraiser and so many other masters to serve. There’s a lot of kind of noodly stuff that I want to do with it, but it’s in amongst all the other stuff I’m trying to do with it too.
CB: So that brings up an interesting question in that you’re talking about defining the monsters and giving them some more personality and life in what they do in the day to day and I think on the opposite of that, you have someone like Lovecraft who felt that every single sentence of definition you give them takes away from the horror. That it’s the unknowable nature of them that makes them terrifying. So do you ever worry that by defining them you make them less scary?
Seifert: Yeah, absolutely. But one thing that I would like to do is, I would like to at least have the answer in mind. Whether or not I actually go through the high priest of Hell’s day-to-day life, I would like to know what that’s like, so it influences my writing. It’s something that I don’t necessarily want to explain.
And with Hellraiser especially, I’m much more interested in having characters speculate in what’s going on and speculate about, “Well, maybe the puzzle boxes are like this,” than to say, “The puzzle box is like this,” because that is definitely a concern. I don’t want to overly define things because you do always risk the reader going, “It’s actually not as good as I imagined it.”
CB: A good example of that is Godzilla. Have you ever seen the original Godzilla?
CB: He’s hidden in smoke and shadow and he’s possibly a scientific creation or possibly something out of the folklore, but it’s always kept very vague and then the sequels where he’s in bright colour, he’s full visible and he becomes a joke. What was once very terrifying now becomes kind of funny.
Seifert: And I think there’s always an inclination to take the things that we’re afraid of and turn them into things that we can laugh at.
CB: Or love, in the case of a lot of modern romance horror.
Seifert: The defanging of monsters is kind of a natural reaction. The defanging and then refanging process. It always used to bother me a little when I see plush Cthulus and things.
CB: Baby Cthulhus.
Seifert: Oh, you just took it and turned it into…
CB: The funny thing is I think a lot of those people haven’t even read Lovecraft. They just like it as the design and the cute thing, you know. And that is a natural progression, I think, when you have something that really terrifies you. One of the ways to react to that is to defang it, like you said. We do that with Casper the Friendly Ghost. There are all sorts of ways that society does that.
Seifert: That’s true. Vampires in folklore were ugly and you didn’t really want to be around them, and they got turned sexier and sexier.
CB: Yeah, if you look at Nosferatu, one of the first vampire movies, he was a traditional vampire. He’s terrifying.
Seifert: And in the books Dracula has got hair on his palms and one eyebrow.
CB: He’s not Bela Lugosi.
CB: Not at all. Yeah, but we definitely do that and I think as we defang our monsters or cute-ify them, that just as often happens, then we have to find something new to be afraid of, cause people are always going to be afraid of something.
Seifert: And that’s what I wanted to do with Witch Doctor. One of the things I wanted to do is take these things that everybody’s so used to and that it’s hard to scare people with, and then find a new angle to make them scarier. So it’s things like a vampire organism that is actually a parasite that’s hiding in your tongue or something like that.
CB: I love that idea because I’ve seen that fish and it scares the hell out of me. Sometimes nature can create something much scarier that the human mind.
Seifert: Generally I find that it does. I love movies like Alien that actually base stuff on nature. The idea of the parasitoid wasp that lays its eggs and then the larvae eats you from the inside out in order to get out of you. There’s a great [parasite] that’s called the ant-decapitating fly and it’s this parasitic fly that lays its eggs between the joints of the fire ant’s armour and then the larvae developing inside causes the ant to secrete enzymes that pop its head off and then its severed head has the larvae growing inside. Eventually the larvae comes up out of a hole at the bottom of the head and it climbs out of this severed ant’s head. And they use them for biological pest control in the Southwest.
CB: You can almost have that with the Penanggalan where something crawls out and eventually the head pops off.
Seifert: That’s similar to what we’re doing with it. In that case with that one, we call them Autotomites. “Autotomizing” translates as “self-severing.” There are animals that are able to sever parts of their body for one reason or other. Honeybees do it with their stingers, lizards do it with their tails. The fly is kind of an example of a parasite doing that rather than to you intentionally, rather than you doing it to yourself.
CB: Yeah and I love the picture there, too [points out a panel with the Strigoi parasite in Mal Practice #1], with the vampire and the tongue there because part of the problem I have with modern vampires is you almost think, “Who wouldn’t want to be a vampire?” You live forever, you’re beautiful.
Seifert: The idea that vampires even live forever is fairly new. It was never there in the 17th century folklore. It just seems that they were so hard to kill that of course they are going to live forever.
CB: Most of what we know as vampire mythology was invented by the movies. They didn’t catch on fire, either.
Seifert: They could be out in sunlight.
CB: That was a convenient way that the director came up with to end the movie Nosferatu.
Seifert: And that is so iconic now that you have the whole Twilight thing.
CB: You ask people to name like five things about vampires, that’s going to be on the list.
Seifert: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Yeah, so all that stuff is really interesting to me. And then things like Twilight. We actually have a Twilight riff that I wanted to do in Witch Doctor that we’re probably never going to get around to. I realised that Bella’s behaviour in the books actually makes sense if she’s infected with a parasite and the parasite need to get from her, who’s the intermediate host, to the vampire which is the final host.
So it’s sabotaging her so she’s clumsy, making her blood smell delicious to vampires, making her fall madly in love with something that’s clearly just trying to kill her, which is basically what happens with a bunch of parasites that do that.
CB: Yeah, they’ll do things like suddenly make you really, really hungry for something that kills you.
Seifert: So I was really looking forward to doing a Twilight-Witch Doctor story, but the final movie’s out, our ship has passed. But it was a way to reclaim even something like that and put our own twist of it and make it more interesting and make it more cohesive as part of this thing that we’re developing.
CB: So does religion play any role?
Seifert: Oh yeah.
CB: Because that’s usually the other third part of the triangle: magic, science and religion all fit together.
Seifert: Yeah, religion plays a role. We’ve had Osiris in one story and we explained that basically in Witch Doctor the gods metabolize worship, basically they metabolize the energy of human belief.
CB: So that’s called a Tulpa effect.
Seifert: Yeah, it’s a Tulpa or an Egregore. It’s something that we haven’t really gotten into much yet, but there’s a lot of starving gods who aren’t being worshiped anymore and are still around that are starving to death, that are very desperate. There’s that aspect and then the whole Heaven and Hell thing is kind of similar.
We did an exorcist story, but possession is the parasitic larval stage of the demon’s lifecycle, like a botfly. That makes for some great visuals and a fun take on possession.
CB: So you have the movie The Exorcist, right? Where at first the bring in all the scientists and it doesn’t work, so finally you have to bring in the priests. And if you’re dealing with monsters in fiction, you usually bring in all the priests and all the priests are like, “It didn’t work. Alright, guess we’ve got to bring in the scientists.”
Seifert: Yeah and that’s how the first issue of Witch Doctor started. It’s our exorcist story and the first thing that happens is it’s basically the final scene of The Exorcist and the priest is in unconscious and Doctor Morrow comes in and sedates the kid, has an argument with the priest and then goes and figures out what’s wrong with the kid and how to start treating him.
CB: And he’s a bit of a mad doctor, I take it. You can tell from the haircut and the eyes.
CB: He might be the sanest of all his cohort, though.
Seifert: I had a really fun bit because everybody perceives him as a mad scientist. Fans perceive him as a mad scientist, Lukas-- it took me a long time, Lukas just kept going for kind of like standard mad scientist looks for him, until I finally got him to do more like the genteel old Southern doctor with the crazy hair. So there’s a bit in the fourth issue where the monsters show up and they’re like fish people and they have tridents -- which from a distance look like pitchforks -- and they have flaming torches and they’re like attacking the doctor’s headquarters.
CB: Oh, that’s just funny. That’s the total role reversal.
Seifert: And the assistant says, “The villagers are storming the castle.” And the doctor says, “I’m not a mad scientist. Why does everyone think I’m a mad scientist?” Which was me kind of talking to the audience.
CB: That’s interesting right there because you have Van Helsing and Van Helsing’s also not a mad scientist.
Seifert: Yeah, exactly.
CB: Versus Doctor Frankenstein. Mad scientist.
Seifert: Yeah, he’s a bit of a mad scientist, yeah. Lukas based a lot of the visual of Doctor Morrow on Wrightson’s Frankenstein. For example the hair. Initially it was much more overt and he scaled it down a bit, made its own thing. But yeah, all that stuff is there. It’s all influences along with all kinds of other random stuff.
CB: Let’s wrap this up since the convention will be closing soon. Give us some hints how Mal Practice is going to wrap up?
Seifert: I kind of feel like the first three issues was a bit of a slow build, whether or not that was apparent to the fans. And then issue four, it got really crazy and then the next two issues just get crazier and crazier. Then we end on... everybody’s favourite moment in the first mini-series is the baby-shaking -- to get the changeling to reveal itself you’ve got to abuse it -- so he shakes it. And that was like everybody’s favorite bit. And so this time what the doctor does to save the day is even cooler than that.
CB: Perfect; thanks Brandon!